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These are the days Maine sportsmen live for. Cool, frosty mornings, bright blue skies overhead all day and foliage that is unmatched anywhere in the world. Fall in New England is unbeatable in its beauty and ambience, and we have the added pleasure of being right in the midst of some of the nation’s best upland bird hunting. Our grouse and woodcock hunting is world class, and you haven’t really experienced the best of both species till you’ve done it Maine style!
There are two (well, three!) ways to hunt these birds in Maine. The basic approach is to ride along old logging roads and gravel byways and look for birds picking grit along the roadside. You get out of the vehicle, load up and walk up on your quarry, potting them as they run (or fly) into the woods. This is certainly an effective way to get your game in as short a time as possible, but there’s not much challenge to it. What usually ruins a perfectly good road hunter is to flush a grouse or woodcock unexpectedly, swing on it and make a great flying shot. Suddenly the game is elevated to the next level, and mere road hunting will never bring the same degree of satisfaction.
Once you pass over into the finicky world of wing shooting, you’re doomed. I can remember my first grouse, fairly taken on the wing. I was 16 and hunting with a Savage 24 Deluxe, an over-under that had a .22-caliber barrel on top and a 20-gauge barrel below. I’d had the choke reamed out from Full to Improved Cylinder the year before when I made a direct hit on a rising woodcock at about 15 yards. All that came to the ground was the bird’s wings and feet, indicating too much choke! After that, I was deadly on birds, rabbits, quail and anything else that jumped up inside 30 yards.
I was actually rabbit hunting when I met my first partridge. I was kicking brush piles and shoving my way through patches of briars when I paused to rest under a tall hemlock. At my next step, the limbs exploded overhead and my upland hunting world changed forever. A big, fat male grouse thundered out and away, 20 feet up and going fast. I threw the Savage to my shoulder, thumbing the hammer back in the same instant, and pulled the trigger just as the bird banked to the right around another big hemlock. To my unending surprise, the bird folded and fell like a stone – I can still see the hemlock boughs fluttering behind him.
As was my habit in those days, I ran home to show everyone my prize, called my friends and all but put it on the evening news. A grouse on the wing! One of the great moments in life and, 40 years later, I still recall every detail.
When that happens, you never go back, and I have not shot a bird (or duck, for that matter) on the ground since then. Even armed with a shotgun and the best in shot shells, the birds have the advantage in every encounter. They know when they are going to flush, which direction they will go and how fast they will depart. The hunter has about two seconds to determine all of this and fire a shot that will (it is hoped) get there about the same time the bird does!
When hunters leave the road game behind they are limited to either walking through the woods in hopes of flushing birds in range or going deeper into debt (and frustration!) by bringing a dog into the equation. There is nothing quite like having your pointer lock up on a bird in full stride, or watching your flushing dog work every inch of cover like a vacuum cleaner, but there is a long, hard road between puppy hood and that first real, honest point or flush. If you’re not prepared to invest many hours of hard work into teaching your slab-footed puppy how to find, flush and fetch upland birds, invest in a stout pair of leather boots and start walking!
I spent about 10 years pursuing grouse and woodcock on foot before I started hunting over Labs, but that background made me a better dog trainer, I believe, because I knew the birds and their quirks as well as anyone. Flush enough grouse (and miss them!) and you’ll develop a feel for their habitat, their habits and their escape tactics that you’ll never forget. For example, it’s a given that if you come up on an apple tree from the east that the birds are going to go out the west side, and if you walk briskly into a tangle of birches and stop suddenly, your next step will likely result in a sudden, wild flush. You will also learn the best times to hunt grouse (mid-day, actually, after they are off their roosts and are busy feeding in orchards or brushy hillsides), and that you’ll want to be in a secluded orchard just before dark as the birds fill up on apples and leaves just before they head back to their evergreen roosting sites.
Woodcock are usually found in the alder bottoms near streams, rivers and other waterways in the morning, but you can also find them on birch-covered side hills during mid-day and in the afternoons. There is also a short period at sunset where you can take a limit of birds as they pass overhead during their late fall migration, but, like ground-swatting, this is considered “unsporting.”
The key to successful bird hunting (without a dog) is walking. Plan on putting five miles or more on your boots every day, and factor in some briar cuts and low-limb face slaps as well. You are going to earn every bird you shoot, but each one that you flush fairly and shoot on the wing is a prize to be cherished. Expect to miss eight out of 10 shots (that give you 2.5 birds per box of shells fired!) if you walk them up and at least half that if you have a dog.
Not only is Maine’s upland hunting the best in the world, it is also the toughest. Bring home a limit of four grouse and three woodcock on any October day and you can consider yourself an expert!
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